READING, June 8, 2012 — As school districts across Pennsylvania struggle with gaping budget deficits and subsequent cuts in staff and programs, state Sen. Judy Schwank joined local public school advocates today to introduce her resolution that calls on the governor to develop a comprehensive legislative plan to improve basic education.
The resolution recommends that the governor establish an advisory commission made up of parents, teachers, school administrators, higher education leaders, business leaders, and legislators to examine the issue and make specific recommendations.
“For several years we have allowed a budget process to dictate the direction of basic education in Pennsylvania. It’s time we consider the future of education in a thoughtful and deliberative process,” Schwank said. “My resolution calls on Gov. Corbett to empanel a team of experts to study education in the commonwealth and to make specific recommendations to address specific issues.”
School districts across the state are facing financial issues due to funding cuts and the end of federal stimulus funding. Locally, Reading School District is laying off more than 100 teachers and eliminating an additional 60 teaching position in the face of a $40 million budget deficit.
“No child should have to fight for their education. Their job is to go to school, study hard, engage in activities and make lifelong memories with their friends,” Schwank said. “Instead, they are losing their teachers and various programs. Schools are closing around them. It’s shameful.”
Schwank said the committee should look at a range of issues, including the current education funding formula and alternative funding sources; the issue of property tax reform and how to sustainably fund education in the next 10 to 20 years; how to maintain local direction of schools while maximizing effective use of funds; determine which programs are essential for a 21st century model of public education; how to address schools in fiscally distressed communities; explore revising the PA school code and recommend shared services and school consolidation options.
“This is one issue where every Pennsylvania citizen is a stakeholder, so the Corbett administration’s vision for public education should be clear,” Schwank said. “At the same time, the public should play a key part in determining its future. Education is just too important to impose an agenda without giving citizens a voice.”
Representatives from several local school districts spoke in support of the senator’s resolution and the need to discuss education funding methods, especially as school districts across the state are struggling to balance budgets.
“In my 17 years as a teacher I’ve never seen anything this dire. We’re struggling to repair antiquated equipment so students can get basic understanding of their education,” said Rik Immendorf, a high school physics teacher at Reading High School. “I fully support the need to have those of us on front lines on a commission, and not just political pals talking about school districts. We shouldn’t balance the budget on the backs of students and that’s what Gov. Corbett is doing right now.”
“What we’re seeing today is a movement on the part of some to become somewhat elitist on who we educate,” said Dr. Martin Handler, superintendent of Brandywine Heights School District. “This is a terrific first step, having people who work in education make the recommendations and plans for education. I believe allowing people who have expertise to develop plans is the way to go.”
Handler said school districts are even being forced to cut education even at the most basic level — early education.
“All research shows that’s where students sustain greatest amount learning,” Handler said. “Financial challenges are forcing school districts to reconsider funding full-day kindergarten. That’s unconscionable and will have negative affects far into future.”
Exeter School Board member Carole Kutscher said her district’s long-range plans like full-day kindergarten and a successful high school co-op program have been compromised because of school funding cuts.
“I think it’s just ridiculous… it’s almost criminal,” Kutscher said. “No business would operate this way.”
Mitch Hettinger, a middle school teacher in the Reading School District, said the education cuts also impact schools’ brightest students, who will likely go on to college and contribute back to their community.
“These students are motivated to go out and do things in our community. Our students go to college, get their education degree and they come back to the City of Reading to work in the school district they love, only to be laid off because of the cuts that Gov. Corbett forced on students,” Hettinger said. “I think this is an outstanding concept and I am 100 percent in favor of it.”
“It goes beyond Reading. Like most urban school districts, we’re at the tipping point as to what’s going to happen,” said Reading School Board member James Washington. “We’re all going to be suffering.”
Samantha Matthies, a 2012 graduate of the Berks Career and Techology Center, argued for the importance of arts programs in schools.
Matthies recently won the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation’s annual radio public service announcement contest for high-school students. This year’s theme was discouraging distracted driving.
Commenting on the ornate Capitol in Harrisburg that she recently visited, she said. “Art is right in the Capitol building. Why can’t it be in our schools? It’s what keeps passion in our world. It’s just as important as the mandatory classes you have to take and it should be in our schools.”
“Sam is just one example of what we’re turning out in our schools in Berks County and in the commonwealth and we’re watching it all erode by budget fiat,” Schwank said. “That’s not the way to plan for success. I think basic education deserves to be studied.”